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SALT LAKE CITY — Ways to fix the traffic congestion problem that plagues Little Cottonwood Canyon and its outdoor enthusiasts have been bandied about for decades.
Two more options were announced Friday by the Utah Department of Transportation: a cog railway or a gondola to ferry visitors to the ski resorts.
Both options were immediately denounced by conservation organizations and backcountry enthusiasts who say they are an attempt to turn the canyon into an amusement park.
"The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance is concerned the shiny appeal of an expensive train or gondola system may distract us from our goals or actually make things worse," said Brad Rutledge, co-founder of the organization and current board member. "These solutions not only miss the target on making things better, but the train and gondola concepts threaten many of the things that make the Wasatch Mountains so amazing today."
But the options come as a result of public feedback, the agency said, and will be included as alternatives as part of the Little Cottonwood Canyon draft environmental impact statement. The alternatives are the result of more than 6,500 public comments that were received.
"Public comment is so essential to everything we do, because we develop better solutions when we work together," Josh Van Jura, UDOT project manager, said. "This level of public participation is terrific to see. It proves just how important these canyons are to our quality of life."
The new alternatives are a gondola from La Caille and cog rail from La Caille.
They join the three previously identified in June this year that include enhanced bus service, enhanced bus service in a dedicated shoulder lane, and a gondola at the canyon base. The five proposed alternatives, which include some concepts that have never been done before in the state, will be studied further and have the potential to dramatically change transportation within the canyon, according to the agency.
The proposed alternative featuring the gondola from La Caille would include a base station and 1,500-space parking structure at a proposed development on the west side of North Little Cottonwood Road at La Caille. Visitors would be able to park at the La Caille base station and board the gondola for direct service to Snowbird and Alta.
The other alternative proposes a cog rail from La Caille, which would include a diesel-powered train with a cogwheel on a track underneath, providing traction for ascending steep slopes.
This is a place that gets millions and millions of visits a year, more than some of our national parks, and the only thing that (UDOT) is considering is transportation for four months out of the year.
–Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons
Cog railways are in place at Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Pikes Peak in Colorado, which is currently under renovation and slated to restart next year.
A cog railway station for Little Cottonwood Canyon would be located at the same location with the same parking structure and improvements to North Little Cottonwood Road as proposed for the gondola station at La Caille. The cog rail would also offer direct service to Snowbird and Alta.
In addition, the agency also added minor revisions for the three previously identified alternatives, including updated cost estimates to all three and adding snow sheds and a second mobility hub to the gondola at Little Cottonwood Canyon park-and-ride alternative.
Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said a gondola or a cog railway will only add to the crowds in the canyon to the detriment of the environment and the watershed.
"This is a place that gets millions and millions of visits a year, more than some of our national parks, and the only thing that (UDOT) is considering is transportation for four months out of the year," he said. "It is about getting people to two businesses in the canyons, the ski resorts."
Fisher said his group as much as any would like to see congestion woes solved, but this is not the way.
"This is less about transportation and more about being a tourist and economic driver. The state is not doing this to solve an environmental or transportation problem. They are doing this to get a return on their investment by increasing visitation and earning more dollars to try to pump more visitors into ski areas."